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Electrification yields more to work truck equippers than just green machines

May 5, 2016
PG&E’s senior director of transportation says there are some not-so-obvious benefits that go beyond green and reducing oil dependence

WHEN properly utilized, work truck electrification has proven highly effective in reducing fuel consumption and emissions.

Electrification can be applied to a vehicle’s propulsion system in the form of an electric or electric hybrid drive system; as a power export energy source (e-PTO) to operate truck-mounted equipment; or as a means of reducing incidental engine idle time associated with functions such as cab heating and cooling.

But it’s even more than that, as PG&E has discovered.

PG&E has more than 14,000 vehicles, and 35% are alternative-fueled or high-efficiency vehicles—making it the largest fleet and the largest alternate-fuel fleet in the utility industry. It also consistently ranks in the top 10 green fleets nationally.

Dave Meisel, senior director of transportation and aviation services for PG&E, said he believes the time is now for electrification.

“You have the obvious reasons, whether it’s national security, transfer of wealth, domestic fuel production, or reduced dependence on foreign oil—all of those things are true,” he said. “Everyone looks at fuel prices today and says, ‘Well, we’re out of the alt fuel business now.’ The fact is, we’ve seen these price points before. We saw them in 2008, we saw them in 2001, we saw it in 1999. This isn’t new territory. When you look at the price of fuel over time, it only goes in one direction. If you look at 15-year windows over the last three or four decades, you see a compounded annual growth rate of about 7.5%. When we look at electrification, we’re not looking at the price of fuel today. We’re looking at the price of fuel over time. We’re going to invest over time. We also have emissions reduction targets: CARB compliance, EPA compliance, ZEV mandates.”

He said there are some not-so-obvious reasons:

•  Economic development and job creation. “I can give you a series of examples with some of our partners who have been building plants and hiring people, none of which would have occurred without the advancements in the new electric vehicle technologies.”

•  Potential to extend vehicle useful life (some fuels). “The reality is, at PG&E and in the utility space in particular, if we could only get 40 miles per day on a plug-in hybrid—just 40—we’d take 87% of the fuel consumed out of our light-duty pickup truck fleet. That’s a pretty good number. When you take 87% out, we would save about 1000 gallons of gasoline per year, per vehicle. And we have almost 4000 of those types of units in our fleet. With this type of technology, in our application, we would only run about 1000 miles per year utilizing the internal combustion engine. So at the end of seven years, which is the normal life cycle, you’ll only have about 7000 miles on the engine. The reason that most people get rid of the vehicle at the end of its life is due to the fact that generally the engine is worn out. If you had a seven-year-old truck with 7000 miles on the engine, would anyone actually get rid of that?”

•  Improved operating costs. “We’re obviously seeing lower fuel consumption, but we’ve been incredibly fortunate with lower maintenance costs. There are a lot fewer moving parts and just a lot fewer parts in general. We’re also seeing a tremendous opportunity on our brakes and tires.”

•  How a utility makes money. “As an investor-owned utility in the State of California, our sales are decoupled from our profits, meaning that we do not make more money by selling more electricity. Instead, we earn a return for investments we make in the electric grid, gas systems, fleet operations, etc. We are a company that invests long term. We have to provide electricity for every citizen, regardless of where they live. Because of that, we don’t make money like a regular company. That allows us to look at electrification a little bit differently than most companies.”

He said it helps with emissions reduction targets, because replacing gasoline with electricity reduces greenhouse gases (GHGs) by up to 77%, depending on the application and generating mix. But PG&E has seen the biggest benefit in its work practices.

“We use plug-in hybrids to extend work days,” he said. “For example, in San Francisco, there are noise restrictions, so our crews with a normal vehicle can only work from 7 am to 7 pm. With our ePTOs, they are so quiet that they meet the noise restrictions and can extend the workday to 24 hours.”

Other benefits:

•  Safety. “In our industry, we use hand signals. That’s because the guy in the bucket cannot communicate with his partner on the ground over the noise that the diesel engine makes. And when we use an engine-driven PTO to operate the equipment, we have to have the engine running. The reality is, our people would much rather talk to each other instead of using hand signals. It’s much safer and effective than waving their hands. The ePTO makes it possible for them to hear one another, even when the aerial device is extended to full height.”

•  Exportable power. “Plug-in hybrids have a powerful generator. We can utilize that generating capability to not only provide needed electricity at a job site, but also to export power directly into the grid to address any planned or unplanned outages. It’s a little bit different than having a generator at home.”

•  Operating costs. “Electric idle reduction can reduce costs by up to 30%. Early results for PHEV and BEV show savings of up to 70% in operating costs. Even as a regulated utility, we still have to manage costs for our paying customers. It is an unreasonable expectation that our paying customers are going to pay anything just because they have to. We want them to do business with us because they want to do business with us, not because they have to.”

•  Useful life. “Some applications are showing three years of additional useful life. So in our applications, that’s a 50% extension in useful life.”

In PG&E’s PHEV pickup truck project, it has continued to work with manufacturers to produce a plug-in hybrid pick-up truck with exportable power. It has been supportive of the efforts of companies such as EDI, XL Hybrids, VIA, and others. It is currently developing upfront capital investment, manufacturing volumes, and purchase price models, and is working with Edison Electric Institute (Transportation Electrification Sub-Committee) to advance this project.

Meisel said exportable power is really the game changer.

“Plug-in electric vehicles, aka extended-range hybrids, all contain a powerful generator,” he said. “This generator can easily export power from the vehicle. We are working with several companies that have designed trucks with 50 kw exportable power. These trucks have 110v and 220v plugs to run equipment at the job site.

“Only one company has designed trucks with 120 kw of utility grade, exportable power. These trucks can produce power up to 480v–3 phase. With this technology and the right safety protocols, we could restore electric service in advance of repairs, eliminate scheduled outages, respond to emergencies more quickly, and even demand shift load if necessary.”

Meisel said the public charging infrastructure is not keeping pace with EV adoption in California.

PG&E has developed a program designed to accelerate EV adoption through charging infrastructure and education that is currently being reviewed by the California Public Utility Commission (CPUC).

Some of the key elements:

•  Deploy 25,000 Level 2 chargers and 100 DC fast chargers.

•  Five-year program to build, own, and maintain 25% of the 2020 EV charging infrastructure need.

•  Deliver turn-key charging solutions with integrated education to accelerate EV adoption.

•  Target commercial and public locations, with approximately 10% of installations in disadvantaged communities.

The CPUC application was filed February 9, 2015. CPUC has asked PG&E for a phased program approach, anticipating a June proposed decision. A request for proposals for operation contractor(s) and site host acquisition begins upon regulatory approval, with infrastructure installation ramp-up starting in 2017. ♦

About the Author

Rick Weber | Associate Editor

Rick Weber has been an associate editor for Trailer/Body Builders since February 2000. A national award-winning sportswriter, he covered the Miami Dolphins for the Fort Myers News-Press following service with publications in California and Australia. He is a graduate of Penn State University.